SALT LAKE CITY -- After he has already coached the Los Angeles Lakers through their worst season in the 66-year history of the franchise, you have to believe Mike D’Antoni wasn’t searching for another way to tick off fans Monday.
Intentional or not, there was more to D’Antoni’s accomplishment of snapping a seven-game Lakers losing streak with a 119-104 win against the lowly Utah Jazz. He also put himself firmly in the crosshairs with a faction of the purple and gold faithful who care only about the Lakers’ draft position at this point, rather than chasing meaningless wins to close out the season.
“What are you going to tell them? ‘Don’t play hard’?” D’Antoni said when asked whether the subject had been broached with his team before playing an equally abysmal Utah team. “That’s not right.”
If D’Antoni had stopped talking right there, he could have been spared the ire from the fan base, as the unexpected win would have been chalked up to Nick Young (who hit the 40-point plateau for the second time in eight games) and big nights from Jodie Meeks (23 points), Jordan Hill (21 points) and Kendall Marshall (15 assists).
But D’Antoni didn’t stop there, of course.
He continued his answer to reveal that he didn’t know exactly what was at stake for the Lakers, who went into the night with a 25-55 record, playing against a Jazz team that was 24-56.
“They played hard, and I think, if I’m not mistaken, it’s the same number of pingpong balls, right?” D’Antoni said. “They flip a coin, or something.”
Turns out, he was mistaken. The Lakers went into the night with the sixth-worst record in the league. A loss to the Jazz would have put them in a tie for fifth with Utah, with the Lakers owning the tiebreaker as the worse team -- should the Jazz close out the season with a loss in Minnesota and L.A. finish things out with a loss in San Antonio -- because Utah would have won the season series 3-1.
A reporter informed D’Antoni that the win by the Lakers actually cemented the Jazz with a worse record and thus better lottery chances.
“I mean, you kind of hate that,” D’Antoni responded, realizing what the win did to the potential draft order. “But, I thought we had the same rank.”
Another reporter chimed in to tell D’Antoni that if the Lakers had lost to Utah, the coach would have been correct.
“Oh, I didn’t know that,” D’Antoni said. “Oh, OK. That’s all right; we’re going to beat San Antonio, anyway. So, it’s all for naught.”
In a way, D’Antoni’s ignorance in this case shouldn’t matter. His job is to coach the team to wins in the present. It is not to manipulate the outcomes of games to try to land better talent in the draft and potentially secure more wins in the future.
And, as D’Antoni pointed out, the Lakers could always beat the Spurs on Wednesday with Gregg Popovich resting his starters and make the win against the Jazz a moot point. Or the Boston Celtics could always beat the Washington Wizards in their last game and, coupled with a Lakers loss to San Antonio, create a coin-flip scenario to determine who gets the No. 5 position.
The logic will be lost on some fans, for sure. When things are as bad as they are right now for believers accustomed to championship or bust, they’ll latch on to whatever they can as an outlet for their frustrations. Plus, D’Antoni didn’t do himself any favors when he said earlier in the season that fans who were discouraged by the Lakers’ struggles should “find another team to root for.”
Combine all that with a less-than-ringing endorsement from Kobe Bryant and repeated head butts with Pau Gasol -- two guys who, unlike D’Antoni, have delivered titles to L.A. -- and it’s no surprise some of the faithful will choose to ignore that D’Antoni gets paid to win games, not to know about draft scenarios should the Lakers lose.
Besides, it’s called a “lottery” for a reason. Even if the Lakers finish with the sixth-worst record, it doesn’t mean they can’t vault into the top three when the pingpong balls are picked. It also doesn’t mean they’ll even get the sixth pick, because they could move down to a worse draft position with bad luck.
And no draft is the same. But it’s important to remember an example such as Damian Lillard going No. 6 to Portland in 2012 when Thomas Robinson went No. 5 to Sacramento. Of course, Chris Kaman was No. 6 in 2003 when Dwyane Wade was No. 5, too.
But the biggest takeaway from Monday shouldn’t be D’Antoni putting his foot in his mouth or the Lakers hurting their supposed chances in something that comes down to luck in the end, anyway.
It was about a Lakers team showing a shred of pride with last place in the Western Conference on the line.
“The basketball gods [made it happen],” Young said. “We needed a night like this. Just the energy. We came in here, we knew it was going to be a battle. It was a way to say, ‘Who wants to be the last-place team in the West?’
“And we went out there, we were making shots and jumping around as a team. We had fun together.”